A Herd of Frisky Robots Illustrates the Appeal
Of an Innovative Computer Science Curriculum
Twenty-four dessert-plate-sized, blue "Scribbler" robots on wheels were dancing, drawing and making music in a Park Science Building classroom on April 17 as students showed off what they've accomplished in a groundbreaking Introduction to Computing course offered for the first time at Bryn Mawr College this spring.
The course is also the first offering from the Institute for Personal Robots in Education (IPRE), a joint venture of Bryn Mawr, Georgia Tech and Microsoft Research aimed at increasing student enrollment — particularly of women and underrepresented minorities — in computer science (see earlier story). Tuesday's exhibition was part of the official IPRE grand opening on Bryn Mawr's campus.
The course is the first Introduction to Computing course in which each student gets her own personal robot. And if the enthusiasm of the students displaying their robots on Tuesday is any indication, IPRE is well on its way to success.
"I'm really glad I took this class," said Hannah Mueller '10, who had no real previous interest in computer science but was able to program her robot to play the music from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"If possible I'd like to take it as a minor," she said.
Students with more experience in computing were equally enthusiastic about the benefits of working with the technology in an environment not dominated by male students.
"I was the only girl on my high school robotics team," said Michelle Beard '10, of Oklahoma, "but the guys really tended to hog the robot. I ended up doing the team blog; I guess they thought that was more appropriate for a female."
The course, which is being taught by Deepak Kumar, chair of Bryn Mawr's Computer Science Program and an IPRE co-Principal Investigator, was also designed to show students that a career in computer science doesn't mean a lifetime of solitude and drudgery spent inside a cubicle.
"Computer science needs people who can work as part of a creative team to come up with solutions to life's problems," said Kumar.
"When you have students who are interested in archaeology or art history and they decide to major or minor in computer science, they bring the kind of fresh ideas and perspective that can lead to great innovation," added IPRE Co-Director and Associate Professor of Computer Science Doug Blank, who will be teaching the robotics course in the fall.
Caitlin Manley '09 and Natasha Eilbert '09 showed how creativity can flourish through collaboration by programming their robots to do a duet of "La Cucaracha" and a synchronized dance to "Hot Cross Buns."
"The robot lets us see that computer science is like any other discipline in that you can be as creative as you want," said Manley. "The assignment might be 'make your robot dance' but you can do whatever you want with that and have fun with it."
Working with simple robots has also allowed students to better understand the limitations that hardware can sometimes put on software development.
"It's always a little messier than you expect," said English major Katie Unger '08 of writing code to get the robot to do what you want.
Unger noted that even the best-written code isn't any good if there's a problem with a robot's motor or it has dead batteries or isn't correctly calibrated.
"Robots make the course materials authentic. There are no fake problems, just those that the students discover themselves," said Blank.
Kumar, Blank and the other members of IPRE will continue to refine Introduction to Computing and are developing a follow-up course that will also incorporate robotics.
"We're looking towards the possibility of using a robotic arm in the next course. We'll be exploring what would be the best choice, taking into account costs to students and what will help drive the learning," said Blank.
The next step for the intro course is to replace the Scribblers with an IPRE-created robot designed to be a best-of-class personal robot that will be inexpensive enough so that each student can still have her own, said Blank.
Blank hopes the new robots will include cameras and be more mechanically refined than the current ones.
"The members of IPRE hope that the inclusion of a school the size of Georgia Tech and the eventual use of IPRE course models at other institutions will allow them to empirically judge the effectiveness of using robotics in introductory computer science courses.
"Anecdotally, it appears that we have a group of excited students who have learned a lot, and might be interested in exploring computer science further. But we won't know how successful we've been for a couple of years," he said.
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